Art has a familiar way of excusing itself from conversation with the untrained eye to speak straight to the soul. Feelings stirred up by masterpieces can be much more poignant than facts known about them. Though, as many a connoisseur might agree, a bit of expertise can enhance aesthetic enjoyment a great deal.
Hard to believe, but the history of art might be too much for some. Too dense. Too dry. Too distant. To those warded off by dates and genres and canons, I can only stress a more streamlined form of art education. Just the basics; only fourteen bits and pieces to better illuminate the bone structure of what’s perceived as beauty, and even the mental processes of artists in the act of creation.
The seven elements and seven principles of art are simple, and simply all important.
They’ve worked together and combated one another to forge every picture ever laid eyes on. They are the first toys students of fine art are given to play with, and the search for the perfect combination of their parts has kept the greatest artists of all time crazed and striving. To wield them well is to produce convincing pictorial arguments. And at least understanding them is the key to not falling totally victim to the bombast of imagery that assails us daily.
So shall we review?
Part One: The Seven Elements of Art
Line: A dot that went for a walk, according to Paul Klee, or the traceable path a point makes through a given space. This definition leaves room for great variety. Lines can be straight, wavy, broken, thick or thin, vertical or horizontal…they also play formal roles in linear perspective, as horizon lines and orthogonal lines, for example.
Colour: Differing wavelengths of light perceptible to us on the visible spectrum. In art making, all colours are born from the three primaries — red, yellow, blue — and varying amounts of white and black. They can be complementary and easy on the eye, or can contrast one another with a jolt. Colours can further be pinned down by their three properties, 1. hue, your standard ROYGBIV; 2. value, a colour’s overall lightness or darkness; and 3. intensity (or saturation or chroma), it’s purity of hue in relation to its neighbours on the wheel (red versus a reddish orange).
Shape and Form: Anything with length, width and depth that appears to reside in space. Another vague definition for a multitude of possibilities. Shapes are considered to be two-dimensional to the eye, and form has to do with more 3-D affairs. These aren’t limited to the standard square, triangle, rhombus array, either — anything organic goes, too.
Value: Again, the general lightness and darkness of a composition’s colouring. Whitest white represents one extreme, blackest black the other. Middle Grey hangs out precisely in the middle.
Texture: The crinkly and smooth bits. Texture can be implied, made through clever manipulation to look a certain velvety or roughed up way on a flat surface. Texture can also be actual, raised up or incised in some physically touchable way.
Space: Empty ones are full of possibilities. This is area in which an artwork comes together, the background, middle ground and foreground. Shapes and forms taking up positive space define their edges here, putting empty negative space between, around and even inside themselves. Perspective needs mentioning here one more, which is a system of using lines purposefully in space to project the illusion of a realistic, three-dimensional objects and figures on a flush plane.
Such are the indispensable ingredients of all representation. See if you can’t pick them out in your favourite paintings or while thumbing through your Instagram feed, it gets easier and more informative with practice. Next time, I’ll tackle the seven principles of art, the tangier herbs and spices that make works truly savoury.